Five Keys to Making Clouds Fly
By Samuel Greengard
The challenges of operating a 21st century law firm aren't lost on Matthew Donehoo. With attorneys scattered across the country and a need to access documents and data on a 24x7x365 basis, there's absolutely no room for glitches, problems and breakdowns—and files must be stored securely. "The demand on IT systems, particularly storage, is growing exponentially," notes the director of information systems for Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney.
The Chicago-based law firm, which operates offices in seven states, views technology performance as an open-and-shut case. "Over the last 15 years, we grew from about 30 gigabytes of total data to more than 40 terabytes," Donehoo says. What's more, with storage demands being highly variable and new cases often requiring additional IT infrastructure and storage on short notice, Segal McCambridge recognized that it needed a more flexible architecture. "We required a whole new level of scalability that hadn't been available in the past," he explains.
The solution? Segal McCambridge turned to cloud computing. The firm now relies on an environment that provides primary data storage, offsite disaster recovery and global multisite access within a highly secure public cloud. No less important: The firm can dial up storage capacity on demand, rather than maintaining a massive inventory of extra storage. "We're more agile and more efficient," Donehoo says.
Segal McCambridge isn't alone. Despite practical challenges and security concerns, organizations across a wide swath of industries are adopting cloud solutions to become more connected, cost-efficient and nimble. A recent Tata Consultancy Services study of more than 600 firms worldwide found that cloud computing is growing rapidly. U.S. organizations now have 19 percent of their applications in the cloud, while counterparts in Asia, Europe and Latin America now top 50 percent.
"There is a growing awareness of the benefits of a cloud infrastructure,” says Ananth Krishnan, chief technology officer at Tata Consultancy Services. “It's allowing organizations to standardize technology and processes and achieve gains that weren't possible in the past."
Adds Andrew Greenway, global cloud program lead at Accenture: "Organizations of every shape and size—and across every industry—are becoming increasingly comfortable with IT as a service, rather than buying components and building their own IT services."
Clouds Roll In
It's safe to say that cloud computing has emerged as a molten-hot topic. The ability to tap into infrastructure, services and applications on demand is both tempting and unsettling. Yet, somewhere between all the hype and paranoia lies a basic but important reality: "The cloud is a thoroughly disruptive technology that has a significant impact on companies, IT organizations and overall business strategies,” states David Nichols, CIO Services Leader for consulting firm Ernst & Young.
Moreover, unlike most technologies that are "born, live and eventually die" within the IT organization, clouds transcend IT and the standard business model, Nichols notes. Clouds can impact an organization in a number of ways, including the ability to scale infrastructure, streamline applications and business processes, provide a higher level of connectedness and collaboration, and manage data more efficiently. In many cases, "It gives people the tools to do their jobs better," he adds.
That's certainly the case at Segal McCambridge. In September 2011, the law firm adopted a cloud-based storage solution from Nasuni to replace an existing storage area network (SAN) in Chicago and at a disaster recovery site. The cloud provides unlimited and on-demand scalability without requiring any change in the physical IT infrastructure; perpetual access and complete protection on-site, including encryption; and file synchronization across offices, which helps distributed teams collaborate and increase overall productivity.
What makes the cloud-based storage appliance so attractive, Donehoo says, is the install-and-forget aspect of the technology. "We don't have to worry about adding hardware and systems,” he says. “Everything is backed up, and the performance and security meet the levels required by a law firm." Moreover, the Nasuni storage solution works within the firm's existing document management systems.
The cloud-based approach to storage has ushered in additional gains. In the past, attorneys sometimes copied data onto external hard drives and USB devices manually, or the firm had to physically ship drives—an inherently insecure process—in order to get reams of case-relevant information onto their computers.
At times, attorneys had to submit a request to the Chicago data center and wait for someone there to process it and send back data. Today, an attorney can conduct database queries over the WAN, and offices share documents with each other in near real-time.
"Cloud-based storage has trimmed days off the review process, while allowing attorneys and others to work in a more efficient way," Donehoo reports. "We are now paying for the exact storage we need at any given moment, rather than building out excess capacity." He says this approach has resulted in a 60 percent saving over the cost of operating the SAN, and the law firm plans to expand the overall use of the cloud over the next few years.
Tata’s Krishnan says that clouds frequently drive new behaviors and workflows into a business. Organizations may initially adopt a cloud to reduce costs, standardize IT or provide dynamic scaling, but, along the way, they often discover that the cloud allows them to remap business processes. Employees are able to interact and collaborate in new and more powerful ways. "It can prove transformative," he observes.
Accenture's Greenway says that the distinctions between public, private and hybrid clouds are beginning to fade. "Business leaders don't care what type of cloud the organization uses,” he says. “They simply want the best possible service at the best possible price. It's the folks in IT that draw the distinctions. It's essential to understand the organization's strategic goals, as well as the desired service level before defining the cloud environment and the right service provider.”
One organization embracing this approach is the State of Texas. With tight funding and limited resources, a combination of private, public and hybrid clouds allows the state to obtain sophisticated IT capabilities in a less costly, more flexible and quick-to-implement manner. In turn, the state offers a more flexible approach to other agencies and organizations that rely on its services. “Users can 'pay by the drink' rather than buying more than they need," explains Karen Robinson, State of Texas CIO and executive director of the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR).
The state is relying on cloud-based software through Salesforce.com and Microsoft Office 365 to create a more "robust" application environment, Robinson says. In addition, DIR, using cloud services from Xerox, is moving to a platform-as-a-service model to manage its infrastructure—including shared hardware, virtualized servers, networks and storage. This approach delivers capacity on demand within a public cloud, while boosting security and disaster recovery. It is allowing DIR to consolidate 28 facilities into two centralized data centers.
Robinson says that the public, private, hybrid approach allows the state to maximize "flexibility for the range of use-case needs in the State of Texas computing environment." This leads to faster deployments, maximum system utilization and optimal use of tax dollars by deploying "just the right amount of service based on the requirements of the solution."
She says that Texas will continue to embrace cloud solutions in the months and years ahead. "Given the options cloud services make available to State of Texas computing customers today, there are relatively few types of systems that couldn't find a home in the cloud," Robinson concludes.
Accenture’s Greenway believes that barriers to cloud adoption are now more psychological than practical. "People are concerned about where their data is going, who is looking after it and who else might be able to access it," he says, but adds that many of these fears are based more on perception than reality. "Service providers are investing heavily in security technology, including better use of encryption, and it is becoming far more difficult to hack into these systems." In many cases, Greenway adds, the level of protection is now better than within the company contracting for the cloud services.
Sky's the Limit
The rapid growth of clouds isn't likely to slow anytime soon. Tata Consultancy reports that customer-facing applications and business processes are currently the major drivers for cloud adoption, but the reasons for using clouds are growing.
The company reports that 78 percent of U.S. organizations rely on clouds to standardize applications and business processes. Other drivers include reducing IT costs (71 percent), increasing application flexibility (71 percent), improving data and trend analysis (65 percent), making faster application enhancements (65 percent) and reducing application downtime (54 percent).
At Metabolon, a Durham, N.C., company that provides diagnostics services and biochemical profiling in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, cloud computing is significantly redefining processes and workflows. The company, which crunches data for companies like Merck and Novartis, generates between 300 gigabytes and 400 gigabytes of data each week.
"The data is analyzed in real time," reports Corey DeHaven, senior director of information systems, who says that much of the computational analysis takes place at data facilities located overseas. "We are really protective about our software and data, and we require a high level of security."
As a result, Metabolon uses a cloud-hosted unified monitoring solution from Nimsoft to help manage and monitor local assets, including servers, databases, applications, environmental controls and scientific instrumentation. The same system monitors remote assets, including smaller overseas data centers with servers, applications, scientific instruments and networks. It also has turned to cloud-based email to aid in data management and governance.
The cloud has made it much easier to identify IT hotspots and reconfigure IT infrastructure on the fly, DeHaven says. This has led to improvements in performance and availability, as well as in disaster recovery and business continuity.
"It allows us to operate in a more strategic way," he adds. Another benefit: The firm requires one less full-time-equivalent IT employee (Metablon has a staff of 12). "We are still using all the software we developed in-house, but it is connecting to the cloud infrastructure in a seamless way," DeHaven explains.
Tata's Krishnan says that, in the end, cloud technology is maturing rapidly, and enterprises are maturing with it. "Business and IT leaders are now looking for reasons to move into the cloud rather than reasons why they shouldn't do so,” he explains. “They are beginning to understand that the cloud can create strategic and competitive advantages. Cloud computing provides the enterprise with a way to deliver a standardized IT infrastructure in an agile, quick and cost-effective way."
Five Keys to Making Clouds Fly
1. Understand your business objectives and desired service levels.
The cloud encompasses many things and disparate capabilities. Tata Consultancy CTO Ananth Krishnan says that the starting point is to clearly define the business case for a cloud and understand how it affects the organization.
2. Create a road map and clearly defined plan.
"It's easy for cloud initiatives to pop up across an enterprise and for the organization to lose control over everything,” Accenture consultant Andrew Greenway says. “It's possible to buy many services with a credit card.” When that happens, he adds, "Data may wind up going places where it shouldn't go." Greenway recommends developing a plan and building a governance system to manage clouds.
3. Address high-value tactical problems first.
It's unwise to toss a mission-critical application or process into the cloud. Start with a discreet database or storage challenge, gain experience and then build on success. Consider using a public cloud, which delivers results with no formal investment.
4. Contract with a trusted provider and negotiate a sound SLA.
Not all service providers are created equal. Engage in the necessary due-diligence and hammer out an acceptable service-level agreement.
5. Focus on security.
Protection is critical--and heavily regulated industries must pay particular attention to security and compliance issues, Tata’s Krishnan says. But well-designed clouds aren't necessarily riskier than internally operated systems, and, in many cases, they are actually more secure.